My destination after braving Death Road was Caranavi, coffee capital of Bolivia. This was to be my first trip to the coffee production zone and my objective was two-fold. The first goal was to accompany a visiting Canadian coffee roaster, providing logistical support and translation throughout the trip. The second was to meet coffee farmers and scope out the various coffee communities in order to better understand the producers` needs for the marketing aspect of my role.
The town of Caranavi is located in Las Yungas, which is a transitional area between the highlands (La Paz) and the tropical lowlands of the Amazon basin. An entirely different climate than in La Paz, it was steaming hot and humid. Most of the coffee producers live within the surrounding jungle area, a bumpy, dusty ride up into the hills.
I found myself content to be in the tropics, far from the traffic and pollution of La Paz and it was sensory overload of the best kind. Incredible panoramas greeted us everytime we jolted to a halt (transporting up to 4 passengers in the car boot at any time). Sprawling hills of lush green vegetation spread for miles.
Coffee colonies, coca fields and fruit trees abound, boasting bananas, mangoes, avocados, mandarins, limes, oranges and papayas. Butterflies of electric blue, violet and yellow are bigger than birds. The air is heavy and humid, smelling of fruit and earth, and filled with the constant buzzing and chirping of birds and insects. It was worth the unnerving journey, without a doubt.
Our Canadian visitor was Derryl Reid, a micro-roaster who owns Green Bean Coffee Imports in rural Manitoba. He runs his small company with his eldest daughter, a roasting machine sitting in his house.
Providing simultaneous translation was a fun challenge. I was nervous at the prospect of translating every conversation for several days, but luckily Derryl was extremely
easy-going and we managed quite well. Admittedly I had the occasional lapse – usually due to snapping photos of stray puppies or mango trees – and would then have to hurtle through the undergrowth to catch up with the conversation.
We even made an appearance on provincial radio: Radio Qhana Amazonia 1060 AM. I did chuckle at the irony – just when I breathed a sigh of relief at having terrifying live French interviews behind me, I find myself translating a live radio interview in Spanish. (All in the name of personal growth…right?) It is rare for this rural area to receive tourists, let alone visiting international buyers, so it was of great interest for the community to hear Derryl`s opinion and feedback about Bolivian coffee.
On our first morning we headed to Muñecas where we were blown away by a tremendously warm reception for Derryl, involving the whole community. We were given beautiful flower garlands, treated to live music and food, invited to dance (no, there will not be photos) and then I was put to work translating speeches from various community members and we toured their brand-new on-site coffee production facility.
Speaking of warm welcomes, just when I thought I was getting the hang of the Bolivian greeting, I discovered it varies in the rural areas. Here, a greeting involves shaking hands, then a kiss on the right cheek with a semi-hug followed by more hand-shaking.
We spent our days visiting various coffee farmers, all members of the cooperative COAINE. The coffee colonies are located at altitudes ranging from 1200m to 1700m and thus each have their own unique qualities, due to the varying vegetation and conditions. It was eye-opening to discover the tremendous amount of work involved for the producers. We scrambled up and down steep slopes through the jungle terrain, and it was clear that planting and harvesting over several hectares of land is a huge undertaking. Among many challenges, climate change poses problems since an unexpected frost can cause a 10% loss of a yield.
Selling their coffee at fair trade prices affords the farmers a fair wage and provides their families with access to health services and education, as well as allowing the cooperative to invest in machinery to improve quality control and production. These communities have an entirely natural, organic approach with no chemicals used and no clear-cutting. Instead, the coffee plants grow at their natural rate in amongst the citrus trees and cedars, absorbing all the flavours of the surrounding earth. As Derryl remarked, this is one of the reasons he favours this coffee, since it “tastes of Bolivia”.
It was fascinating to learn about planting and growing coffee and the many stages of production: harvesting, rinsing, pulping, fermenting, washing and drying. Despite the copious quantities of coffee I (used to!) drink, I would not have been able to identify a coffee plant prior to this visit. With their waxy green leaves and branches laden with seeds and cherries, they are quite striking.
I learnt so much from the farmers and Derryl during these few days, and am looking forward to spending more time with the producers and giving a helping hand during next year`s harvest.
Also, I`m excited to return when mangoes and avocados are in season. Eating fruit straight from the tree was amazing, you don`t get much more local and organic than that! Oh yes, and I need to improve my vine-swinging technique, which currently leaves a lot to be desired.